September marks the most important milestone of the year (in the northern hemisphere) for winemakers, grape growers, oenophiles and anyone else whose career or pleasure depends on vitis vinifera—harvest. The previous season’s pursuits hang in golden and purple clusters on rows of vines from California to France. Workers pick tons upon tons of grapes and winemakers endure sleepless nights monitoring the progress of fermenting juice. But for those lucky enough to live in Santa Fe, September promises a week full of great food, wine and general revelry with the annual Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta. With over 150 participating wineries, importers and distributors (not to mention the incredible lineup of local restaurants), and the celebration of the event’s 25th year, 2015 is shaping up to be one of the best Fiestas yet. This year’s participating wineries have a lot to report since last year’s festivities, including a slew of awards, new winemakers, the introduction of new wines and even a marriage or two.
Silver Oak Cellars, SFWC’s Honoree of the Year, acquired full ownership of a Missouri-based cooperage producing American oak barrels. Founded in 1972 by Raymond T. Duncan and Justin Meyer, Silver Oak makes two Cabernets—one from Napa Valley and the other from Alexander Valley in Sonoma County. New winemaker Nate Weis (formerly of Antica Napa Valley) will have the opportunity not only to hand-select grapes, but to hand-select staves for the barrels in which his wines will age. Talk about quality control!
CADE, perched high up on Howell Mountain in Napa Valley, was created in 2005 by the founders of Plumpjack Winery as a compliment to that label’s valley-floor wines. CADE had reason to celebrate this year, as winemaker Danielle Cyrot released the first wines she nurtured all the way from vine to bottle. A graduate of UC Davis, Cyrot has worked harvests at Schramsberg and Artesa Vineyards in Napa and has worked for wineries in Alsace, France and South Australia. Danielle will continue to lead CADE in its commitment to sustainability—the winery was the first Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design Gold Certified in the Napa Valley.
One of my favorite wineries, Elk Cove in the Willamette Valley, got busy with bubbles and released its first-ever sparkling rosé. The 2011 “La Bohème” Sparkling Brut Rosé is made using the traditional Champagne method. The wine is composed of Pinot Noir grapes from the La Bohème vineyard, one of the highest elevation vineyard sites in the Willamette Valley. Aged on the lees for three years and disgorged in 2015, I don’t know who’s got more to celebrate, Elk Cove or those lucky enough to score a bottle!
Ramey Wine Cellars had an unexpected surprise when Decanter Magazine named their Platt Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2010 Chardonnay one of the best Chardonnays in the world outside Burgundy. Winemaker David Ramey, who crafted wines at Dominus and Rudd before starting his own label, makes a classic California style of Chardonnay: oaked, rich, round and opulent, but with plenty of juicy acidity to whet any palate.
**Speaking of awards, New Mexico’s own Black Mesa Winery brought home the bacon with an array of medals this year. The winery earned two silver medals from the 2015 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition for its 2012 Merlot and Malbec, beating over 3,000 other competitors. The 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon and Cosecha Ultima dessert wine were each awarded Jefferson Cups at the 2014 Jefferson Cup Invitational Wine Competition, which took place in November. Heavyweight winemaker Karl Johnsen brought home several other awards from the Indy International Wine Competition and also laid claim to a gold medal at the New Mexico State Fair for its 2010 Petite Sirah.
Tablas Creek came out on top when the Daily Meal published its 101 Best Wineries in America. The Paso Robles winery, a leader in the use of both red and white Rhône varietals like Roussanne, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Viognier, was named No. 1. It’s nothing less than we’d expect from a property owned by Robert Haas, the prominent importer and founder of Vineyard Brands, and the Perrin Family of Château de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
**Cheers to Valerie Masten, vice president of national sales at Skurnik Wines, an importing and distributing company whose book includes some of the greatest producers in Germany and elsewhere great wine is to be found. Valerie tied the knot with wine writer Jon Bonné, author of The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste, senior contributing editor at Punch Drink, U.S. columnist for Decanter Magazine and former wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. The two married at Bedrock Winery’s Bedrock Vineyard in Sonoma. The Bedrock wines will be featured in The New California Wine seminar on September 24, where Beth Novak Milliken of Spottswoode, Jason Haas of Tablas Creek and Sarah Harshaw of LIOCO Wine Company will talk about a new style of California wine that emphasizes restraint and transparency.
2015 marked the 30th year of organic farming at Spottswoode Winery. Spottswoode was the first to pioneer this approach in 1985, and the Spottswoode Estate vineyard was certified organic in 1992, the second vineyard in the Napa Valley to earn California Certified Organic Farmers certification. The winery releases just four wines and has also introduced biodynamic farming principles in recent years.
LIOCO, a “new world négociant” producing wine from grapes grown in Sonoma, Mendocino and Santa Cruz counties, will be at SFWC showing its wines for the first time in New Mexico. Founders Matt Licklider and Kevin O’Connor met in Beverly Hills, when Kevin worked as wine director at Spago and Matt was the national sales director for North Berkeley Imports. The wines, vinified at a cooperative winery in Santa Rosa, emphasize a more restrained style.
Crawford Malone, founder of Crawford Malone Fine Wine & Spirits, will show off the amazing group of wines he represents including Frog’s Leap, Corison, Burgess, Fess Parker, Inglenook, Round Pound Estate, Wente and his own label, Billhook Wine. These are some of the gems of California and are worth a second (and third) sip. Frog’s Leap winemaker John Williams is committed to sustainable farming and all the winery’s vines are dry-farmed. 2015 marks the culmination of an exciting project with the “lost varieties of Napa Valley,” lesser-known grapes that were popular during prohibition but have since faded from view. Frog’s Leap has grafted varieties like Mourvèdre, Mondeuse and Charbono, and will harvest some of these unusual berries this year.
Ruinart makes some of my favorite bubbles, and I’m not the only one who enjoys these wines. The Champagne house has been named this year’s SFWC Champagne of the Year, but Ruinart is also celebrating another honor. UNESCO recently listed several “Champagne vineyards, houses, and cellars” as world heritage sites, and Ruinart is included in that list. It’s no surprise, considering Ruinart is the oldest established Champagne house, founded in 1729, with some of the most impressive underground chalk cellars of the region. The wines will be featured in the “Champagne 101” seminar on September 25. Megan Gordon, Champagne Ruinart Brand ambassador, will take sippers through several different styles of Ruinart, including non-vintage and vintage blanc de blancs and rosé. Lucky attendees will also have the chance to taste some older vintages and experience the heavenly things that happen to a bottle of aged Champagne.
The wine world is constantly changing, but thankfully we can all depend on September for a fabulous Wine & Chile Fiesta. Cheers to this year’s participating wineries. Santa Fe’s got some great drinking to look forward to!
by Erin Brooks